Saturday 3 November 2007

But a lifetime burning in every moment

Every now and then a book comes along which makes you think "wow", and prevents the normal day-to-day activities taking place without a constant desire to be reading said book. It leads one to read whilst walking to work, often quite perilously, and sneak a copy under the desk in the library. This week such a book reared its head.

Back in one of my earliest posts, I asked people to suggest n
ovels or plays with twins in - as a twin myself, it's something I find endlessly interesting. Partly because the topic is fascinating, partly because I like discovering how accurate authors are in portraying twinship. Twinhood? Twinicity? Of course I can only compare to my own experience, so it's not the most objective test. But it keeps me off the streets.

Anyway. A novel nobody mentioned back then was Linda Gillard's A Lifetime Burning, but it is probably the most convincing portrayal of being a twin that I have ever read. Even more so than The Comedy of Errors. Then again, Topsy and Tim presented rather more verisimilitude than old Billybob. I don't want to tell you too much about the plot of Gillard's novel, for three reasons. Firstly, it will ruin genuine shocks and surprises which enhance the reading no end and add richness to the writing; secondly, Linda has said that she doesn't really do plots - more characters to whom things happen; thirdly, it would sound ridiculous. I don't mean that as a criticism at all - but a synopsis of the novel would make you think "wow, what a crazy amount of things happen to this family", whereas reading the novel makes you think "Wow!"

So, not revealing the main plot points - but suffice it to say that the Dunbar family do not live uneventful lives. The novel focuses on Flora, whose funeral is witnessed in the opening pages, and flits between first and third persons, and many different times throughout her life. She is forceful, hopeful and often quite selfish, but with a disarming self-awareness - and great closeness with twin brother Rory. They are not identical personalities, nor are they wholly disparate (the two usual paths taken with twins in fiction) but rather complementing characters; individuals but intertwined.

Though the novel jumps all over the place, I never found
it confusing - rather a path towards illumination and comprehension of the characters, understanding (rather than sanctioning) the way they act. Linda Gillard writes with lyrical intensity, beautiful prose which is powerful without being overly 'flowery.' I enjoyed her previous novel Emotional Geology, but this is leagues ahead of it - can't recommend it enough. The subject matter isn't uncontroversial, but nothing in A Lifetime Burning is gratuitous - and almost every other modern novelist I've read could take a leaf out of Gillard's book.


  1. Keeps you off the street? If you read on the way to work (walking) you are more likely to end up squashed into the tarmac! Take care :)
    I think twins are a fascinating subject too - but I always understood that twins themselves couldn't see what all the fuss was about! OVW

  2. 'Every modern novelist..' That is a very sweeping statement.

  3. And quite deliberately followed up by '...I've read', anonymous!

  4. I would imagine that being a twin would bring up all sorts of thoughts and questions, as well as joys and delights!

    I am really enjoying your reviews. I just keep adding your recommendations to a very long list of books to read. (I also loved Tove Jansson's The Summer Book. I understand she also has a winter book but I can't find it in the States, yet).

  5. oh yes, The Winter Book is lovely. It's in our local bookstores in British Columbia. Amazon has it, and I'm certain that Powell Books in Portland will too.

    do keep searching ... it's well worth the effort.

  6. Have you read The Sotweed Factor by John Barth? It features quite an interesting set of twins and is a terrific book as well. That reminds me, I haven't read it for ages...

  7. What a wonderful place to work! I recall you saying you studied English. Sounds to me like you've found the topic for your PhD dissertation - how the portrayal of twins in literature reflects attitudes in society... something like that. You can come up with appropriate wording yourself, it's a long time since I finished my second English degree and I'm out of touch! Please visit my blog and leave your comment. Fellow readers and writers are always welcome to join in the writing-based discussions there.

  8. Thanks you so much, Simon, for your wonderful review. ALB has had quite a few good reviews but that one left me feeling choked. It means a lot to me in that it was written by an "insider", ie a twin. (I'm not a twin. I don't even have a brother so the the book was challenging to write.)

    I'm so pleased you found it gripping. When I meet readers they often complain about being kept up till the small hours, so now when I sign copies at author events I tell them not to start it late at night. ;-)

  9. Glad you're pleased, Linda! Did you get the email I sent you about the book? Asked a few questions. It rejected it the first time I tried, but the second time seemed ok. It was a reply to your offer of a copy, so I know the email address was right... (!)

  10. Simon, though I'm not a twin I so completely agree with your assessment of this fantastic book. Glad to know you enjoyed it.


  11. Simon - I agree with you entirely about this book. Thought it was excellent and, as you say, streets ahead of Emotional geology. I could not put it down once started and sat up late to finish it. Am looking forward to her next


I've now moved to, and all my old posts are over there too - do come and say hello :)

I probably won't see your comment here, I'm afraid, but all my archive posts can also be found at